Sunday, November 30, 2008

Snow on Beinn Ratha

The wisdom of the geese has proved right. Their early leaving betokened a longer, harder winter than usual. In this brief introduction to winter, I have already experienced more snow and frost here than in three plus years previously. Winter came early and, unlike the geese, I have lingered a bit longer than usual. The first year, my husband whisked me off to New Zealand and Australia. I got a double dose of summer that year. Next year I was off to the US before Christmas and there had been no sign of snow or frost here. Beinn Ratha did not have even a light dusting of snow. Last year we were in Indiana for a special Thanksgiving where we had plenty of snow and cold. We got back to Caithness in time for a flurry of snow and the only frost all season, but the stark white on the grass was gone by midday.

We have had one snow day already and yesterday as I walked to the dairy maid's cottage to feed the cats, each blade of grass was wrapped in a shroud of ice. The stone path was too slippery to navigate, so I walked as gingerly as I could on the frozen spikes of grass. The sun, although late and lazy this time of year, shone a soft golden light on the grass and melted the worst of the frost. Before the melting was complete, however, the sun had retreated and the temperatures had plummeted again. We had below zero weather here.

Although this zero is a Celsius zero, rather than his fiercer North American cousin, Fahrenheit zero, below zero weather is a formidable opponent on either continent. If the wind off the North Sea gets in a huff and drives snow or sleet in front of it, then the colder temperatures of the North American wind chill are moot. Either is too cold for human comfort.

This winter, however, offers a new season of beauty to add to my affectionate palette. Although I am most fond of the colours of Autumn on the hills or the jester yellow of whins in full bloom in summer, the sight of Beinn Ratha this morning in a full mantle of snow gave him a dignity and softened pastel colours that held me admiring him. I had never seen Beinn Ratha with more than a dusting of snow suggesting a bald pate or a tonsure. This snow extends to his shoulders and spreads along the other, anonymous hills by his side. As I wrote that line, I felt obliged to name them. My husband provided a local map --a trusty Ordinance Survey of Thurso and Dunbeath. Beinn Ruadh, I think ruadh means red, is the trusted right hand mountain of Beinn Ratha, although it is on his left. The others are lesser players, Cnoc na Tobaireach, Cnoc nan Airigh. Cnoc, meaning a knob or a hill, denotes the nobles, courtiers paying homage to Beinn Ratha in his court.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Snow Day in Scotland

We bring with us our expectations and memories along with our luggage when we come to a new place. If we are staying for a long weekend or a fortnight's holiday, we probably will not unpack all those memories any more than all the clothes we have brought. After 4 years, I have unpacked a lot of those associations, but even so I get a surprise.

Today ushered in a new season of surprises and mix and match associations with a snowfall. The first proper snowfall I have seen in my four years here. Snow began yesterday--fitfully. I watched the flurries out the window and had to wonder "Is that snow or sea froth?" Only then did the classic question, that Hoosier schoolgirl memory one, kick in, "Will it stick?"

A little girl in Indiana knows that if the snow sticks--one flake cooling the earth and another falling on it before it melts and so on to create a blanket of snow on the ground--on the roads, on the rooftops, adorning the tops of evergreens--then the yellow school buses are stopped and the world gets an unscheduled holiday--a snow day.

If it sticks, if the yellow buses are halted for the day, then the next question is "Is it good packing snow?" Packing snow has the right volume and moisture content to stick together in gentle balls--a few for hurling but mostly for rolling into giant balls for snow men. I can still remember the sound of the ball rolling, squeaking, grudging that last round of snow to reveal the startled grass below and the amount of effort required to move it without setting it into avalanche mode.

I always made the base of the snow man so big that it was a monumental effort to get the torso heaved into place. Unless I could enlist my big brother's help to perch the final ball--the head--into place, I would have a headless snowman. This headlessness happened often enough that I learned to modify the traditional three balls perched atop each other by creating a head carved out of the torso--the erstwhile middle ball. I like to think this was an aesthetic success but I doubt it. It resulted in very snowy mittens. Until the snow melted, it stayed harmlessly out of the way decorating my mittens.

When I got older I learned to ski on the snow and older still I learned to drive on it and in time became enough of an adult that I knew that snow was hazardous and inconvenient and that my employer would recommend staying at home but would not pay for a day at home. Nonetheless, those grown up memories don't stick to the flakes of snow piling up on the ground.

As I look down at the snow I can tell in an instant that it is not good packing snow--too wet. I also can tell at a glance that the snow will soon be melting. If it is not good snow for playing in, then the next best thing is that it be short lived.

I go to the back door and realize with a start that this is the first time I have ever lived in a house without a snow shovel--or two. I usually had a small, light one that went into the car as soon as the leaves began to fall. I usually had another, heavier one in the garage. When I traded in my snowman-making mittens for grown up gloves, my principal snow activity became shoveling it out of the way. The morning after a snowfall would mean a chorus of metal blades along cement--a clanging, scraping intrusion on the softening effect of the snow.

Snow blowers were more efficient. I was grateful to a neighbour who brought hers along and cleared my driveway in minutes rather than the hours it might take with a shovel, but shovelling snow was as close as I could get to the snowman days of my youth. I liked admiring the flakes lying intact on the top of the heap on my shovel as they shimmered in the weak winter light. I liked the ploosh as it flew off the end of the blade and landed in a heap of snow at the edge of the driveway or sidewalk. I liked watching the wall of snow building up with each shovelfull as if I were tunneling into the whimsical world of my childhood.

I liked clearing a narrow channel through the sidewalk in front of my neighbour's house knowing they could not do it for themselves. The first snow brings out the best in everyone. People stop and push each other's cars out of ditches. Neighbours offer up the salt or grit or shovels or tools their more forgetful neighbours need. Everyone remembers to fill their bird feeders. Sometimes this good feeling lingers throughout the long snow season; more often it dwindles as the snows become more common and lose their magic, but each new first flake brings that out again.
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Saturday, November 08, 2008

Daylight Savings, Credit Crunch, and the Appearance of Doing Something

I do not like to think that I am a cynic. I have noted, however, that every cynical person begins their rant with that disclaimer. I'll compromise and suggest that, although I have my cynical moments, I am on the whole optimistic. In case it is not obvious, I am about to be cynical. If you are upset by such things, look away now.

Daylight Savings Time. It is called something else here, I think, but the concept is the same: by moving the clocks, we somehow get a beneficial effect. I have struggled for years to come to grips with what it all means this moving of the clocks. I am not good with time in general and so the idea of shifting the clocks to save something finite has always baffled me.

Today I had an epiphany. Daylight Savings Time is another manifestation of the credit crunch. When we had all the daylight we wanted, we squandered it. (Whose fault is that? We must have a public inquiry.) Now that it has become scarce, the government has stepped in to conserve this scarce resource.

Once I understood it in those terms, daylight savings time made sense to me. The government has taken what we had anyway, called it something else, obliged us to accommodate (and be grateful) and kept it. If they could figure out how to tax it, I daresay they would.

Perhaps down south sliding the clock morning wise makes sense. If school children and office workers can catch the bus in daylight, well I am happy for them, but couldn't they just leave the clocks alone and get up earlier? Can the government give another hour of sunlight in the evenings, too, so school children and office workers see the light on their way home? If not, then what is the virtue in daylight savings? Where are they saving it? Have they invested it wisely? Will they give it back to us?

Up here we get so little sun now that one hour one way or the other still leaves me in the dark. The sun gets up about 9 am now and lolls low on the horizon until going back to bed about 4pm on a bright day. On a grey day, well, perhaps that is what the government is doing with all those daylight savings hours---saving for a rainy day.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

"Hello, Chicago!"

4:56am Greenwich Mean Time I wake and hit the button for BBC radio, expecting to hear that the US election is still on tenterhooks. Instead I discover that I have slept through a projected victory for Obama at 10pm and a gracious concession speech by McCain, but I am just in time to hear Obama tell a jubilant crowd in Grant Park, "Hello, Chicago."

My daughter and my grandson, proud ticket bearers, are among the 250,000 bearing witness at this end of the election hoopla and beginning of a new era for the United States. I voted for Obama. I took great pride in getting my absentee ballot and sending it back across the Atlantic--I made sure the postal clerk and nearly everyone I met knew about my vote. In the kind-careful way of conversations here they all would say, leaning in a bit closer and speaking softly almost conspiratorially, "He does seem the better choice, doesn't he?"

In the beginning McCain had my sympathy and my respect although I disagreed with his political philosophy. One of the hardest parts of watching this campaign was seeing McCain melt down in public. He became smaller and meaner than I had thought possible. Too much ink has already been spent on his running mate, so I'll leave that aspect alone and just say that I was glad that, in his concession speech, he returned to the graciousness that is his better self.

The party in Grant Park is being felt around the world. Before I was out of bed, I had received two congratulatory phone calls. A friend wrote me a lovely note in which she spoke about America as inspiring and influencing and enabling others. It was lovely to hear those words. It was wonderful to feel as if I had been given back my country. America has so much to offer that it should be a model for the world--not for the arrogance and greed of recent experience but for a generosity of spirit, for what my friend calls a pioneer spirit: a willingness to make something where it has not existed before and to make all those of a similar spirit welcome.

Ironically, on the same day that I got my country--my first country--back, I also received notice that I had not received a fiction writing mentorship for which I had applied. The disappointment in learning that was small in comparison with all that I had received. Obama has his work cut out for him and in that, too, he sets us all an example. In the middle of the celebration he began hitting the notes of hard work, cooperation and mutual respect, public service, and failure. He did not use that word--it would have sent too jarring a note in a celebratory speech, but failure, as every pioneer knows, is an integral part of success.